On the use of internal references to date the Sutta Nipata

I have noted on several occasions my rejection of the special early status given to the Sutta Nipāta by several scholars of early Buddhism. It seems obvious to me that even the early portions (Atthakavagga, Parayanavagga, Khaggavisana) are no earlier than the bulk of the prose suttas.

One of the key bits of evidence that is often used to support this theory is that the early portions are occasionally referenced in the prose suttas. Of course, by itself this merely establishes that these specific portions are earlier than the prose texts that quote them. And the proposal ignores the much more important and systematic way in which suttas are constantly referencing and reusing other sutta passages.

But this little note is not about revisiting this argument in full, but merely to point out one little detail that I can’t recall noticing previously.

One such case is SN 22.3, where the householder Hāliddakāni approaches the Venerable Mahākaccāna in the Avanti country and asks how to understand a verse from ‘The Questions of Māgandiya’ of the Aṭṭhakavagga (Snp 4.9). Though the verse appears to be pitched at an ethical level, describing a sage intimate with none in the village, Mahākaccāna explains it in philosophical terms as non-attachment to the aggregates.

So this can be taken as one of the small number of cases where the Snp is referenced in the prose texts, thus establishing it as early.

The problem with this—or at least, one problem—is that the very next sutta (SN 22.4) depicts the same situation, except Hāliddakāni asks about a passage in ‘The Questions of Sakka’. Here he references a passage from MN 37 and DN 21. But DN 21 is, on a number of grounds, clearly late, while MN 37 is not obviously early. It’s quite possible that the quoted passage was part of an earlier text that has evolved into the forms we have today. Which is fine, but it shows how flexible the notion of “early” is when we can attest to only a small fragment of text.

The two SN suttas are set in the Avanti country, outside the main area of Buddhism in the Buddha’s day, and do not mention the Buddha as being alive at the time. So it’s likely they stem from the period after the Parinibbana. I have written on this in a previous post:

Rather than supporting a case for the especially early status of the Atthakavagga, then, these two suttas suggest that after the Buddha’s death, mendicants traveled to new lands and taught a variety of texts now found in the nikayas. And, interestingly, lay folk had already learned advanced texts well enough to ask questions about them.


It’s an interesting point you’ve made. I have to admit that I’ve always leaned a bit towards the Snp being early. For me it has seemed that the teachings are more focused on what it looks like pragmatically to be fully awakened than the systemization of the teachings of the canon as a whole.

Early or late, no matter to me. I have been particularly challenged by the Atthakavagga and go to it often for inspiration. In the case of this subject matter, both the Paramatthaka sutta and the Dutthatthaka sutta encourage me to not form views and opinions and cling to them. We can have a amicable discussion about the ins and outs of timelines of suttas, but in the end, when it’s from is not important to me. Of course, I’m not a scholar like you and others here, so a vigorous intellectual debate is not in my wheelhouse!


See, that’s exactly the thing. We shouldn’t be tying “early” to “good”. If something moves you and is meaningful for you, that’s what matters. The date it was composed isn’t important.

History is just history; it can inform and enrich our reading and contemplation in certain respects, but at the end of the day, it’s just a story that we tell ourselves.


To me the question of early age matters. After all I want to follow the teachings of the Buddha and not of a Buddhist Brahmin or a specific Buddhist saint. What to make for example of the “no-view”-Buddhism of Snp 4? Aren’t most of the suttas professing a very clear “view”-Buddhism (starting with samma-ditthi)?

Another example is that we sometimes find a “no-effort”-Buddhism, which appeals to many people nowadays. I switch sides myself every now and then, but what the scholarly approach offers me is a broader perspective of how plausible certain ideas in the suttas are.

These days it seems to me that the first chapters of Snp are surely of later age, and that the later chapters are sometimes so peculiar that they stand out and I can’t take them as representative.
Thanks for contextualizing the reference to Snp 4.9 @sujato.